Care orders for children where separation proceedings also ongoing amid conflict between parents – 2023vol1#35

Dublin District Court granted full care orders in respect of an adolescent girl and boy on the third day of a hearing. An emergency care order had been granted in 2021 and an interim care order was granted in 2022 in respect of both children. The parents’ relationship was difficult and emotional abuse was a concern.

The case concerned two adolescent children, and boy and a girl, whose parents were also involved in acrimonious separation proceedings. The father had had issues with alcohol, and the mother had on one occasioned been detained in a mental hospital arising from her behaviour, though she denied she had any mental health issues. Social workers had had long involvement with the family, largely because of the family conflict, and the school had expressed concern about the girl.

On the second day of the hearing the mother’s barrister said that her client was a non-national and that her understanding of English was somewhat limited. She indicated however, that the mother wished to proceed without an interpreter as she was anxious for the case to continue.

A social worker, who had been allocated for 18 months, during which the parents were cohabiting but going through separation proceedings gave extensive evidence, though she was no longer the allocated social worker.

The case had initially come to the attention of the social workers due to a referral from the public health nurse on the basis that she felt the children had “failed to thrive”. In 2015 there had been a number of referrals regarding the parental relationship, noting that there were regular arguments and there were mutual safety orders and protection orders in place. The father had alcohol issues, the mother had mental health issues and there were medical concerns regarding the boy. The file was closed briefly but came alive again quickly due to the ongoing parental issues.

The social worker said there appeared to have been a lot of supports put in place including counselling, help with co-parenting and play therapy. In addition, YAP (Youth Advocacy Programmes) workers had been allocated and the mother had GP support.

During the period 2015-2020 the parents resided in the family home together. The social worker said it was difficult to pinpoint when exactly they separated. In 2019 a family safety plan had been put in place, meetings had taken place but she said the plan was due for review. The mother had no real family support in Ireland.

When this social worker was allocated to the family the mother was frustrated about the change in social worker. She was also frustrated with the father. Her primary issue was that the father was not helping out in the home or with the children. The social worker said she had a strained relationship with the mother.

Asked what a “house of good things” would look like, the children described “no arguments, Dad not drinking, Mum making curries, shopping with Mum and chatting with Dad and cooking.” The children said that their mother got angry and gave out to the girl but not the boy. She said that the mother gave out to her father and that she needed to calm down more. The boy tended to spend a lot of time on the Xbox and in his room.

The boy had had a number of sessions with a support service and the social worker said she had arranged for the children to re-engage with that service. A YAP worker was allocated to the children in July 2020 and the father availed of an alcohol support service. The social worker said at that time things were relatively stable.

In September 2020, the YAP team conducted a home visit and found things calm and positive. The mother was working well and was engaging and the family was looking forward to a family outing. The girl and her mother were doing positive things and they had got a puppy.

A planned safety review was cancelled due to COVID. The social worker said that the parents had a court date in relation to custody, separation and home ownership and it was the source of a lot of stress. The social worker felt the mother was quite low in herself and she suggested that the mother visit her GP for support.

The father had mobility issues which affected his ability to help out around the house. This was a source of frustration for his wife. In addition, he was seeking custody of the children. The social worker had suggested that the mother link in with her GP. She said that she would not accept a family support worker.

In early 2021, the father had experienced some serious health issues and was awaiting surgery. In addition, the social worker said that there had been an ongoing dispute as to who would move out of the family home in order to alleviate the situation but that there had been no agreement and they were trying to stabilise the situation.

A YAP worker met with the girl and prepared a report, which was read out to the court. It said the girl was anxious. The girl said that her mother was angry with her as she had indicated she wanted to live with her father. She said she could not focus on school. Her mother was bribing her to say she wanted to live with her and shouted at her almost every day. She said that there had been no recent good times, she never knew what mood her mother was in and that she thought her mother had mental health issues.

She said she did not like her mother’s partner. The girl scaled things at a 0. She said she did not feel safe with her mother and that she was scared at home, she sometimes locked herself in her room to get away. She said that she had her dad and two uncles and that she could talk to them. She said her mother could stay with her partner and that she would live with her father. The social worker said she had a very good relationship with the girl who came across as articulate and able to express her views.

A male YAP worker met the boy and his report was also read out to the court. It said he played Xbox a lot and he wanted to stay living at home. He said that his parents shouted a lot and that he had been scared. He was scared someone would get hurt. He said that there were arguments every other day about cleaning the house but then a big row. He scaled things at 5. He said that he tried to play his Xbox and ignore things. He said that he would go to his sister for help, to his uncle for help or to his friends for help.

Following that initial assessment, the outcome was to apply for a child protection case conference.

The social worker moved on in February 2021 and said that she had received a call from the father, saying the mother was screaming about cleanliness. He was advised to call the Gardaí.

After further engagement with the family a case conference took place in April. The father was present in person with a friend and the mother was online with her partner and her mother and other family. The outcome of that conference was that both children were listed as active on the CPNS (Child Protection Notification System) under the category “emotional abuse”.

The social worker said that things had got significantly worse during 2021. The girl had texted the social worker the week after the case conference that the mother had threatened that she was going to get the father arrested and would hurt him. She had been drunk. The father was still living in the house, recovering from surgery.

The girl was in contact a lot with the social worker and said that she needed help. She said the father had relapsed and that she had seen him drinking. She said that her parents argued and that she was in a friend’s house. The mother told the social worker that the father was aggressive, that he had threatened her and that she had called the Gardaí. The father had been arrested. A safety order had been in place and the father had been found to be in breach of it. He was remanded to Cloverhill.

In late May the girl texted the social worker again. She said that her mother had said that she was not going to care for her and that there was no milk and there was very little food. She said her uncle could help.

The social worker went to the house with groceries and attempted unsuccessfully to speak with the mother. She contacted the mother’s GP, who said they would make a welfare check. An uncle collected the children and the dog, and the Gardai were called. Eventually the mother opened the door, but she refused to go to hospital. The paperwork was completed for an emergency admission under the Mental Health Act, and she was kept in for assessment. However, there was no obvious mental illness and she was discharged.

An interim care order was obtained for the children.

The social worker contacted the father in Cloverhill via the Chaplain and he gave his consent for the children to stay with their uncle. He was released from custody, and she said she had a better relationship with him. He was satisfied that the uncle was minding the children and that the children were happy in that placement. The children were building up a relationship with their uncle. The only issue was the distance from their school friends. The children did not want to go to their mother and were afraid. The social worker said that she had turned up at the school and had become heightened.

The social worker suggested to her at the first statutory review that she write letters to the children. There was no face-to-face contact but some letters and phone calls were exchanged.

It was agreed initially that the mother could go to the boy’s Communion, though he was reluctant. She sat at the back of the church with the social worker. She said the ceremony itself was fine but again afterwards the mother wanted to make contact with the boy, which he did not want.

There were also difficulties around the girl’s Confirmation, and up to Autumn 2021 there had been no contact. Phone calls were blocked as the children were not ready for contact with their mother. The mother was not accepting of the children’s views.

The social worker said she had requested a parental capacity assessment which would include a trajectory, safety planning. Both parents had agreed to participate in a parental capacity assessment.

After the children went into care the father engaged in addiction treatment both with a local organisation and the AA. The children met daily with their father and enjoyed this contact. Access was supervised by an uncle.

The Child and Family Agency (CFA) lawyer asked the social worker about the ownership of the house and the social worker said that the house was a huge bone of contention, that no one could agree about it, that the children wanted to return there but that the parents could not agree.

The social worker said the children were happy and the school felt the children were calmer and the girl was blossoming. They had warm banter and lots of fun.

Asked about the mother’s own family, the social worker said that the mother was very dismissive of her own mother and was shouting at her when she came over to Ireland for a number of weeks.

The social worker added that the mother had a difficult relationship with the father’s family and had raised concerns regarding drinking and hygiene in their family. The social worker said she found no substance to those concerns.

Asked if there was any evidence of the mother’s capacity to change the social worker said there had been minimal progress; the mother had a fraught relationship with the social worker and she had little insight regarding the children. The mother’s barrister put it to the social worker that the mother was from another country and that all of the discussions were in English when English was not her first language. There was room therefore for misunderstanding and for the mother to be frustrated. The social worker said she accepted that there may have been cultural differences but that fact never came up and nothing was specifically raised by the mother about it.

The barrister for the mother said that her client felt that not enough supports were put in place and if they had been put in place maybe the family would not have ended up in the situation they found themselves. The social worker said that they could not force the mother to avail of the services offered.

In relation to the change in social worker, the barrister said it was understandable that the mother might be frustrated by the change in social worker. The social worker accepted this.

In relation to the mother’s mental health, her barrister said that she denied having any mental illness. The social worker said that there were concerns regarding her behaviour and her ability to regulate and that there were concerns regarding a possible personality issue.

The barrister said that the mother was stressed with all of the professionals asking questions and constantly wanting to meet her. She also said that the mother felt that the children sided with their father due to his ill health.

The father’s barrister pointed out that there were various versions of how home life was up to the time the social worker was allocated. The barrister said that the father had been characterised as someone who was not as hands on with domestic chores than might have been expected, but he had been in extreme pain, had been attending his GP and had been awaiting an appointment to see someone. The social worker was aware of that and acknowledged that the father had had surgery, slept downstairs and used a stick.

It was agreed that there was acrimony between the parents and the social worker said that the mother was frustrated with the length of time the court proceedings were taking. The children recorded the violence between the parents. The girl would say that “mum got angry all of the time even when dad didn’t do anything.”

The father’s barrister asked the social worker who was the most problematic – mum or dad. The social worker said neither were innocent but that there were significant worries about the mother’s ability to regulate herself. She said the children had been through a lot. The key issue for the girl was her relationship with her mother.

At the outset of the third day of the hearing the lawyer for the CFA asked the court for some time. The court was told that the mother found the proceedings difficult and that she preferred to stay outside the court in the company of her brother who had travelled from abroad to support her.

Once proceedings resumed the court was told by the mother’s barrister that the mother decided not to contest the care order application. She said that the mother considered the evidence given and accepted that she may have been previously told many of the things given in evidence, but feels that she did not take them in at the time. The court was told that the mother suffered extreme trauma due to the breakdown in the family relationship and she would like to focus on re-establishing her relationship with her children.

The mother had previously refused to attend counselling but had now agreed to attend as she would like to see her children. The barrister requested that a plan be put in place for therapeutic supports for the mother and children. The court was told that without the stress of court proceedings the mother is hopeful that she and her children will be able to move forward, and is hopeful that a plan will be in place within three months.

The father’s barrister said that there is no evidence that the mother suffered extreme trauma due to the father’s alcoholism and asked the court to make a finding in that regard. The judge replied, “this is a child care court and has no interest in the parents’ marital relationships or other relationships unless that relationship impacts upon the welfare of the children. As the matter is proceeding on consent there is no reason to make findings of fact in relation to same.”

The father’s barrister told the court that the father’s position had always been that it was in the children’s best interest to see their mother and he would help facilitate this in any way possible. She said that the father conceded that he had a very bad alcohol and addiction problem and that he was now dealing with the consequences.

The judge said that all involved in the case had experienced the depth of feeling that the mother has experienced. It was fortunate that the mother had received good advice and was in a better position to receive and act on that advice. He commended both parents on prioritising the children’s needs over their own.

The social worker said that there was a long history of social work involvement with the family. She said it was good news that the parents were consenting to the care order and that it would go a long way to help the parents and children get their relationship back on track. The children had expressed their love for their mom. The children were doing very well and were in a stable and secure environment with their paternal aunt. She said that the girl had taken on a parental role in taking care of her parents, but both children were now relaxed and becoming children again. She also said that the children now had a loving relationship with their extended family members.

The solicitor for the CFA asked the social worker if any of her concerns regarding the parent’s capacity to change had been addressed. The social worker responded no. She said that she previously had a positive relationship with the mother but that had changed. She said that she did have a positive relationship with the father, but she had not seen any evidence that either parent had the capacity to be able to care for their children in the near future. The father’s addiction issues were his main priority. He had regular meetings with a key worker and had a long road ahead of him.

The social worker said that the social work department wanted to support the mother. The mother could be accommodated if she felt more comfortable having someone accompany her when she met with social workers. She said that the mother last saw the children in person in January 2022. The children understood that their mother was attending counselling and it was because of this that they felt comfortable to see her. The CFA could put a plan in place to assist with access but she said that past access plans did not last.

She said that the on one occasion the mother had become very upset when access did not take place due to one of the children having Covid. The mother would have to understand that issues could arise with access. She said: “Things can happen that are out of the agency’s remit.” The father currently had supervised phone calls with the children and access on the weekends, and the children were content and happy with that. She said that there had been pressure put on the agency to increase access, but that the agency would be moving at the children’s pace.

The social worker said that the children loved their mom, but they worried about her, and a lot of work would be required to rebuild their trust. The children identified extreme pressure from their mom to talk. There would be times when the children did not want to talk but she said that communication can start with letters followed by a plan setting out expectations of the mother. She said it was very important for the mother to focus on her own needs at the moment.

The social worker told the court that the girl sees the school counsellor. The girl was very pleasant and was well able to say what she is comfortable with. She loved discos, clothes shopping and she was in contact with her friends from her old school. She said that the girl had a very good relationship with her aunt. Her wish is for stability, security and to be able to speak openly. She was happy that she had safety and security in her home and understood that she could have contact with both of her parents if she wished. The social worker said that it was obvious that there was some positive parenting by both parents.

The social worker said that the boy was doing very well in his new school. He was a very clever, creative and a chatty young boy who loved joking. The opportunity of calm and peace in his current environment was benefiting him and it was clear he was very happy in his current placement. He was attending football training twice a week and felt a part of the team, which was very important for him. He had been able to go on holidays which was something he said he never remembered doing.

He had a relationship with both of his parents and currently had access with his dad. She said a lot of work would have to be done with both children to build trust with their mom. There was funding for therapeutic supports available for the boy and he had indicated his willingness to engage with those supports.

CFA solicitor: “Is a care order until the age of majority, appropriate and proportionate?

Social worker: “Yes. Myself, I have worked with the parents since 2021. They both have their own issues, and it will be a long road for them. They have to focus on their own issues and engage with services.”

The mother’s barrister asked the social worker if she would accept that it was important for the children to understand their mother might find it difficult to engage in therapy. The social worker said that the children had gone through a lot. Before she could continue the mother entered the courtroom and requested that the in camera rule be lifted so that her brother could attend court with her. The father consented to the mother’s brother attending court. The judge stressed the importance of the in camera rule but said that the brother could attend court if he swore an oath. The mother’s brother took the oath and supported the mother for the remainder of the court proceedings.

The mother’s barrister asked the social worker if she understood that the mother had changed her position with regards to the full care order. The social worker responded yes and said that it was very positive that the mother is willing to engage in counselling and had the support of her family.

The father’s barrister said that the father had had issues with alcoholism, but he had maintained sobriety for 18 months. She said that up until December 2021 the children had access with him almost every day. The father had maintained his sobriety until March 2022 at which time he had been admitted to a residential facility. The social worker agreed and added that the father had always been very respectful and had fully engaged with the social work department. She said that the parents had a very difficult relationship.

The father’s barrister said that at present the children were choosing not to have access with their mother, but they are having access with their father.

Father’s barrister: “Do you have any concerns that the father has alienated his children from their mother?”

Social worker: “No, I know that has been asked on occasion. I broached co-parenting with them but the mother did not agree. It will be difficult for the parents to co-parent together.”

The social worker said that she would not say that the father was alienating the mother from the children, but there had been a lot of discussion in the house and the father might have had inappropriate conversations with the children which might now be having an impact on the children’s decision not to see their mother. The children were in a placement with the father’s sister and that was a difficult situation.

The social worker said that the aunt had experienced verbal abuse from the mother, and she was not comfortable being around someone who could be very loud. The aunt was encouraging of the relationship between the children and the maternal family. The father’s barrister said that the father had made it very clear that he would like reunification at some point notwithstanding a care order being made until the age of 18.

The guardian ad litem (GAL) told the court that she supported the care order. She said that the children were getting on very well. The girl was doing well in school. The girl felt like she had a learning disability, and this had been confirmed. She said that the boy was also doing very well. He was seeing a dermatologist and might require a hearing test. She said that the children were eager to get their belongings back from their mother. She added that they should not be told what was happening with the family home until a final decision was made.

The judge asked the GAL whether the mother had any family in Ireland. The GAL said that the mother did not have any family in Ireland. The judge said it was very important that the mother had an advocate or a family member to support her and help her engage with the agency. The mother’s brother said that depending upon the notice either he or his brother could travel to Ireland to support their sister.

Judge: “Both parents need to prioritise the children and not engage in adult conversations with the children or in front of the children. It is important that father does not force the access issue. The court acknowledges the children’s wider family and access with the maternal side of the family should also be encouraged. The court also notes that there has been tremendous work done in this case and the court wishes the children well and wishes the parents well on their respective journey.”

The judge said that the children felt safe and stable in their current placement. The parties agreed to engage with the agency and attend counselling. He said that he was satisfied that the needs and wishes of the children had been considered. A care order until the age of 18 was made for both children.